Road Test: 2003 Subaru Baja

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Oct 25, 2002.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    It'll Grow On You

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    Note to Subaru: Body cladding does not make a vehicle more attractive.

    By Liz Kim

    Pros: Carlike ride and handling, fuel mileage, easy to find in parking lots, multiple configurability.

    Cons: Polarizing looks, limited functionality.

    Lounging around in my second-story apartment on the corner of a pleasantly shaded, if densely populated, area allows me access to the conversations of passersby (yes, as a matter of fact, people do walk in Los Angeles). Sometimes it's more inadvertent than others, but whenever I drive home a car with a unique appearance, I'm sure to hear one comment or another. Having chosen a genteel part of town in which to reside ("genteel" being a euphemism for "somewhat shabby"), new cars tend to stand out like the bump on a navel orange.

    Thus it was with great anticipation that I proudly parked the Subaru Baja, exuberantly cloaked in Baja Yellow paint, right below my window. As was expected, it got a lot of attention, but the most succinct phrase that stuck in my mind was: "It isn't pretty, is it?"

    Well, no. It isn't. Subaru has apparently discovered the ancient Pontiac body cladding burial grounds, and after taking its spoils, glued it all onto the already homely, ducklike body of the Outback wagon, only with its rear hacksawed to provide an open cargo area. With its jarring lines and interrupted flow, there should be a good reason why Subaru would take such a styling leap.

    It must be something in the air. As of late, car manufacturers have been salivating over niche markets, imagining a large populace searching for that one perfect vehicle that will address its singular needs with a uniquely configurable cargo area. Some iterations include the Honda Element, the Pontiac Vibe, the Toyota Matrix and the 2004 release of the Scion bbX, all of which seek the buyer who wants the hauling capacity of a pickup truck or an SUV without giving up the ride, handling, passenger-friendly and gas-sipping qualities of a car.

    Subaru's offering to the group is the Baja. It's certainly not the first time a manufacturer has offered a car-based pickup; heck, it's not even the first time for Subaru, having had released the Brat upon the unsuspecting world from 1977 to 1987. But the Baja is the first such hybrid with seating for four, all-wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension and its configurable Switchback system.

    What's the Switchback system, you ask with a curious cock of the head? Well, it's the Baja's big selling point. The most notable aspect of the Baja, as previously mentioned, is its open cargo space. In the box measuring 41.5 inches long by 49 inches wide (or 39 between the wheel wells) by 17 inches high, complete with its own bed liner, it allows for a wide array of tall merchandise to be carried that couldn't be accommodated by a station wagon.

    Lowering the tailgate allows for a length of 60.5 inches, and one can order a tubular bed extender to help keep items secure. Be careful opening up that tailgate, though, because it's very heavy and you can get your hand pinched between it and the rear bumper. Considerately, Subaru provided a swing-down license plate bracket that'll keep your digits visible when the tailgate is lowered. Opening up the Switchback door, a hole measuring 30 inches wide by 12 inches high, folding up the rear bench seat and placing the seatback flat against the floor will allow transportation of objects up to 77 inches in length. When the Switchback door is open (a light will illuminate on the dashboard), it gives you a nice breeze in the cabin. We'd prefer a seatback that's split 60/40 so that you could carry one passenger back there while the Switchback door was in use, but this is not to be. Also, the rear glass window is fixed, unlike the midgate system of the Chevrolet Avalanche. Once loaded down, you can secure your cargo using the four cargo bed tie-down hooks. The Subie also comes with a standard roof rack.

    One of the aspects that wards off some people from the prospect of a traditional pickup truck is its inhospitable interior. This is not so with the Baja. Inside, we found comfortable digs, with supple leather that featured specific Baja embroidered tags on the power driver seat and manual passenger seat, both of which provide adjustable lumbar support. The seats provided decent thigh support and side bolstering, but the center console armrest was deemed too low.

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    We liked the deeply grooved optional floor mats that can contain some spectacular spills. Silver and black are the prevailing themes throughout the interior, dressing up the usual dowdy Subaru dashboard with chrome rings around the straightforward gauges and plastics around the transmission shifter and doors. A power moonroof is standard, as are power door locks and windows, with one-touch-down operation for the driver window. Most of the materials around the cabin are soft-touch plastics, and we only found fault with some of the glossier plastics on the stalks and the cheap-feeling roof liner. Nice attention to detail — like a compass in the mirror and an illuminated ignition switch ring — aids in giving the Baja a premium feeling, which is lacking in most pickups. A three-knob climate control system was deemed sufficiently simple, but we felt the knobs could be bigger. Our tester was equipped with the optional in-dash six-disc CD changer, and you can read our review of the audio system.

    To further distance the Baja from most compact crew cab pickups, Subaru designed the rear seats to have enough room for two adults to settle in. Between them are a center console storage area and two cupholders. True headroom was on the low side; there was no fold-down armrest and the seatback was slightly upright, but the two adjustable headrests made it more of a pleasant place for a ride-along journey than not. Try making that claim riding in the rear seats in a small crew cab; the only equal we can think of is in the generous rear digs of the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab.

    Rendering the Baja mobile is Subaru's 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that provides 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 166 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Equipped with a manual transmission (as our test car was), the Baja capably accelerates in the midrange; although, it's marginally slow upon takeoff and runs out of breath in the higher ranges. This pugilistic mill is able to motivate the 3,485-pound vehicle from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.9 seconds, which is on par with most compact crew cab pickup trucks moved by six-cylinder power plants. Certainly, the Baja's added weight over a lighter Legacy was felt; Subaru's H6 power plant would make a perfect fit for the Baja's engine bay.

    As previously mentioned, thankfully, our vehicle was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Aside from a clutch that engages way low in its pedal travel, and somewhat notchy engagement of the shifter, we found the manual easy to use with its short throws, and much better suited to this type of vehicle. We averaged 20 miles to the gallon in both highway and city driving, which is very good compared to most pickup trucks. The Baja allows for a 2,400-pound towing capacity, foregoing any serious ambition of hauling cargo, but enough for weekend jaunts with your sparkling new water toy in tow.

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    The Baja rides on the Outback's 104.3-inch wheelbase, but adds six inches in the rear overhang area to accommodate the bed. Accordingly, the Baja rides much more like a car than a truck, lacking a high center of gravity and feeling more rigid over bumps. Credit its four-wheel independent suspension, with struts up front and a multilink design in the rear. Indeed, the body was kept planted and well-balanced, without the jounce usually associated with pickup trucks. While there was some body roll, it was mostly controlled and predictable enough to allow the Baja to thread through our 600-foot slalom at 58.9 mph. Moreover, although the steering was slower than we usually find in Subarus, it was still very direct and precise, with little on-center dead spot and accurate point-and-shoot performance.

    Safety is addressed by four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and they worked well to haul down the Baja from 60 mph to a standstill in 126 feet. Subaru's most advertised aspect is all-wheel-drive capability, and the Baja's got it; the Subie's all-wheel-drive system utilizes a viscous center coupling to vary power distribution fore and aft as needed to maintain maximum traction when it's not distributing power evenly to the front and rear wheels. It not only provides a surefootedness to vehicle handling, it allows for more confidence on ice-slicked roads.

    Our test car was equipped with the dealer-installed optional sport lights, dual bulbs that stick out from the roof like the eyes of a toad. They cast a bright spot on the road in front of us, and although they're technically not supposed to be used when driving (they only work when the handbrake is engaged), we found that raising the handle up a notch allowed them to work. Not that we would engage in such rabble-ish behavior, but we can imagine the glee in coming down a dark freeway behind an unsuspecting car and then switching on the light.

    Ultimately, the Baja is more of an exercise in style and a statement about your lifestyle than a conveyance rooted in function. It's for those who frequent Home Depot as a hobby, to pick up a new ficus and a trellis rather than those who need to carry blocks of cement or furniture. It's perfect for those transporting long sporting items, such as a surfboard or skis, but not necessarily great for a primary caregiver in Seattle picking up the kids and the groceries — they'd be exposed to the elements; they would be better served by a station wagon. The Baja will have limited appeal (Subaru wants to reach about 24,000 of you), but for those who need about half the open-bed cargo utility of a truck as well as a vehicle that rides like a car, the Baja will serve your needs well.

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